The Two Kinds of Church Leaders: The Rancher-Shepherd Divide

kinds of church leaders
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Every church longs to grow. That’s the way it should be. “The Great Commission” was not “The Small Suggestion.” It’s important for churches to know that there are two kinds of church leaders.

But many churches are stuck in neutral. They can’t seem to break through their current plateau to the next level.

So what is keeping many of these churches from reaching their full potential?

In many cases, I think it’s something as simple—but decisive—as the Shepherd-Rancher divide.

This is based on the premise that these are the two basic kinds of church leaders—Shepherds and Ranchers.

Shepherds are oriented toward providing primary care to their sheep. They are the ones in the trenches with coffees and funerals, discipling and weddings, one-on-ones and late-night calls. They are not usually leaders so much as they are chaplains.

I cannot begin to tell you how much I honor them and revere them.

Ranchers are oriented toward ensuring that their sheep are properly cared for. They are leaders and visionaries, mobilizers and catalyzers, inspirers and motivators, change-agents and provocateurs.

There has been much back and forth as to which “model” is best. It’s trendy to opt for the Shepherd role, and thus argue for smaller church communities. As a result, the “Pastor as CEO” has become almost cliché for dismissal and condemnation.

But what if we have a false dichotomy with the two kinds of church leaders?

What if it’s not Shepherds vs. Ranchers, but Shepherds and Ranchers? And what if a lack of ranching is what’s keeping many churches at their current level?

Let’s make a case for the Rancher for a moment.

In the Old Testament, God clearly put Moses into a Rancher role.  When he tried to fulfill this role instead as a Shepherd, arbitrating each and every situation, he failed miserably.

And the people suffered.

It took the wisdom of his father-in-law, Jethro, employing the skills of a Rancher, to organize things and unleash others to care for the people.

In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit birthed the church by dropping 3,000 fresh converts on 11 very overwhelmed men. It was a megachurch mess if there ever was one.

It wasn’t long before the apostles realized they needed to pursue Rancher roles while setting apart deacons for the shepherding tasks.

The point is that both Shepherds and Ranchers are needed. Both kinds of church leaders are essential.

A hard working Shepherd can care for approximately 70 people. If that person doesn’t bring in other Shepherds, or become a Rancher, they will become a bottleneck for growth.

Intriguingly, the average size of the typical church is around 70 people. Hmmmm…..

I know that at Meck, we had 112 people at our first service on our first weekend. That means the church outgrew me day one. I had two choices: I could continue to be a Shepherd and stay around 70 or so as a church in terms of impact and influence, or I could become a Rancher and ensure that the people were shepherded and position the church for unlimited growth.

I became a Rancher.

We went from 112 in attendance to now more than 10,000 in terms of active attenders.

It wasn’t easy. Most who enter the ministry are, by nature, Shepherds.

And being a Shepherd is appealing.

You get to be at the center of almost every “Yea, God!” story. You are the one in the hospital, at the wedding, drying the tears, holding the hand, leading them to Christ. You are building every ministry and taking every hill.

And those strokes are intoxicating.

Not so much for the Rancher. You have to be willing to let others get the credit, see others take the hill, let others be praised. You are not at the center of every life-event of those you love. Instead, you hear stories of people praising a counselor or small group leader.

So why give up Shepherding? It’s simple. Based on Romans 12:8, if you have the gift of leadership, you are called to lead. And that is what a Rancher does.

So what can be done?

It’s simple. Either become a Rancher or bring some into the mix.

I’ve seen a lot of staff people at churches be absolutely perfect for growing a church to 200 or so attenders. But then, those very same skillsets and practices kept them from growing the church to 500.

They needed to move from Shepherd to Rancher… and didn’t.

Or couldn’t.

It’s not that churches should fire those people at critical growth stages. But it is important to realize that either someone must grow into a Rancher role, or you need to bring in Ranchers to continue the effective and necessary work of the Shepherds.

So let’s drop the bashing of “Pastors as CEOs” and realize a deeper truth. In Scripture, both shepherding and ranching were called for.

So let’s call for them now.


This article about the two kinds of church leaders is adapted from James Emery White, What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary. Order this resource here on Amazon. This article originally appeared here.

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James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book is What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary (Baker). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.